January 18, 2020
My Uncle Jake passed away in December 2019. When we visited him in November his doctor told us he was suffering from “too many birthdays”. I loved how the doctor put it. He was 91. He was my mom’s brother, the youngest of five siblings, the only boy, and my last connection to my mom’s family. You are supposed to have favorites, but he was my favorite since I was 5 years old.
My wife, youngest sister, and I went to Cottonwood, Arizona to pay our respects at his memorial service. In the weeks leading up to the service my sisters and I went through pictures to find some nice ones of Uncle Jake. My older sister, Laura, recently digitized my mom’s huge family photo album so she got us off to a good start. I used Lightroom to touch up a few of them and then printed them to display at the service. The church administrative assistant worked with me to to get the pictures displayed. When we showed up Saturday morning she had white boards and stands for us to post the pictures on.
The memorial service was quite simply the nicest I had ever attended. Years ago when Jake lived in Winslow he conducted a series he called “Sermon in Song” He’d sing a hymn in his beautiful tenor and then talked about the biblical foundations of that hymn. In a typical sermon he would cover a few songs. Pastor Jonathan in Cottonwood got wind of that and a few years ago asked Jake to reprise that when Jonathan had to be out of town. As part of that, the pastor videotaped an interview with Jake about the process. He played parts of that interview during the service. We also heard recordings of Jake singing two of his favorite hymns during the service.
Speaking and singing in your own memorial service: you can’t do better than that.
Everyone who spoke at the service repeated the refrain: he was the kindest and gentlest person any of them had ever known. An older man stood up to say that Mr. Baker was his favorite teacher ever. Max stood up to testify that Jake was the best boss ever. Members of the Verde Valley Voices recounted how he co-founded the group and was a joy to sing and be with.
I was one of the last to speak. Knowing the inevitable was going to happen, I had a few months to gather my thoughts about Uncle Jake and ended up with a long text which I was planning to read from. At the beginning of the sharing, Pastor Jonathan reminded us that we didn’t need a second sermon. Uh oh. Suffice it to say that I cut down my planed talk dramatically. Instead of the opening humorous line I replaced it with something along the lines of “Pastor Jonathan said we didn’t need a second sermon; although my last name may be Thompson, I am a true Baker at heart and like a Baker have a lot to say.” Here is the written version of my speech
I’m not sure how many times I’m going to cry today, but if the over/under gambling line is 2½, take the over.
My name is Howard Thompson and Jake Baker was my mom’s brother. I think today most everyone knows him as Jacob; but to me he will always be Uncle Jake.
I have a confession to make. Like your kids, you aren’t supposed to have a favorite uncle or aunt. But of my mom’s 4 siblings, Jake was my favorite. My aunts were all great but my Uncle Jake was my hero.
He stayed in Winslow near my grandparents and was a big help to them as they aged. Jacob was a school teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Winslow and then became principal of the same school. This was the same school he attended as a child. He admitted it was a bit awkward at times supervising some of the same teachers who taught him when he was a child. Years later he got a job as assistant superintendent in the Cottonwood and Sedona area.
Each summer we would travel over Route 66 from Southern California to visit my grandparents, aunts and uncle. The stories I could tell of those summer trips across the desert: 3 AM starts; chicken pox; me and my 2 sisters and a collie in the back of a VW bug; our car overheating in the desert. But those are stories for another time.
During our visits Uncle Jake would take me for a walk down to the drug store after he got off work to get a soda at the drug store counter. This was the real deal: the little metal frame with a small conical paper cup – like you see for snow cones today – hand mixed Coca Cola syrup and soda water. Spending time alone with him was Heaven for a little boy.
One summer visit I was lusting for a toy rifle I saw at the Western Auto. I was doing what I could to earn a little bit of money here and there but I just wasn’t going to get close. One evening Uncle Jake just went and bought it and gave it to me. I was over the moon.
It wasn’t just the stuff he bought me that made me close to him, it was his gentle spirit. His generosity extended to his treatment of people.
Like so many families of the Great Depression (though what was so great about it, I don’t know) they had a tough life. Before Jake was born, both my grandparents suffered from tuberculosis requiring them to move from rural Illinois to the southwest. Reading some letters written by my Aunt June – his second oldest sister – I came to appreciate just how hard their lives were. Despite the hardships: three brothers dying of disease in Illinois, living over a thousand miles from family in an age where technology couldn’t shorten the distance; and with his dad traveling on the Navajo reservation for weeks at a time, Jake’s gentle spirit shone through.
Being the youngest, and being blessed with a long life, Jake was eventually thrust into the role of caretaker for his sisters. A job he took on with love. Well into his 80s Uncle Jake would travel over to Sedona two or three times a week to check in and help his oldest and only living sister. My Aunt Sally is right, Jake is the kindest person we’ve ever known.
As you no doubt know, Jake has always been a singer – in Winslow he sang in a number of groups including a barber shop quartet. You may not be aware of this, but Jake was a professional singer from the age of three: he’d ride his tricycle down the block singing and would be rewarded with pennies and nickels. You can see him on that trike on the picture board set up for the reception.
There weren’t as many singing opportunities when he and my Aunt Sally moved up to the Verde Valley. In true Baker fashion, he co-founded a singing group – The Verde Valley Voices. It has been active for many years and grew in size up to 120 people.
We live in Portland, Oregon today, so It’s a rare treat when our visits coincide with one of his singing engagements. We got lucky two summers ago as the Voices were singing in the Verde Valley Days festival. Although Jake was starting to slow down and had to sit instead of stand, he was a trooper and stayed in the group. My wife, Carla, her sister, and I were in the audience and it was wonderful to see and hear him sing.
On another trip, my son and his wife – a soprano in the Chicago Symphony Chorus – joined us for a visit. One of the truly memorable moments of my life was sitting around the home piano listening to them sing. I can’t imagine the singing in heaven is any better.
I’m so grateful for my Aunt Sally, who is a fantastic story teller and has always helped keep Jake’s life fresh in my mind and heart. On every visit we’d hear another tale of the ways he touched the hearts of his students. His past students and fellow teachers would invariably stop by his house to say hello when in town. But I’m preaching to the choir, you all know what a wonderful person my Uncle Jake was.
Over the past few decades I have made a point of talking on the phone with him a couple of times a month. Once we retired we tried to get down to visit him and Sally once a year. He told me he thought of me as his son. There isn’t higher praise than that. With my parents gone, I looked to him like my father.
Uncle Jake was the last surviving member of his siblings. When I talked with his doctor in November, he told me that Jake was suffering from too many birthdays: 91 of them. What a great way to put it. Personally, I”m glad he had so many birthdays and I’m thankful that I was able to share so many years with him. I miss him as the last connection to my mom’s family but mostly I miss his warm spirit.
Here are me, Diana, Sally (Jake’s Wife), and Carla at the fellowship time after the service.
Here are just a few of the pictures we used at the service. If you’d like to see all 33, you can look at my Lightroom album here.
Here is Jake with my dad, grandpa, and older sister Laura in about 1950. A couple of years before I was born.
Here is a picture of all 5 siblings who survived childhood. Probably taken sometime in the 1980s I’d guess. My mom is in the red skirt immediately on Jake’s right.
A beautiful portrait; probably my favorite picture of the group.
Ten or so years ago, I bought Uncle Jake an iPad so we could share family pictures and FaceTime with him. Here I’m showing him how to use it.
Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of my younger sister, Diana, with Jake.
I miss Uncle Jake terribly but feel content that he received the best send off possible.